The Big Questions – Three – What is Your “Self”?

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The following is an excerpt from GigaOm publisher Byron Reese’s new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. You can purchase the book here.

The Fourth Age explores the implications of automation and AI on humanity, and has been described by Ethernet inventor and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe as framing “the deepest questions of our time in clear language that invites the reader to make their own choices. Using 100,000 years of human history as his guide, he explores the issues around artificial general intelligence, robots, consciousness, automation, the end of work, abundance, and immortality.”

In The Fourth Age, Byron Reese argues that most of the big questions around technology like AI and automation are not about what technological breakthroughs will happen, but center around foundational questions about life, humanity, and reality. He distills them down to three key questions. Below is the third one: What Is Your “Self”? And check out the first and third questions: “What Is the Composition of the Universe?” and “What Are We?” and will soon follow.


What Is Your “Self ”?

So now we come to our third and final foundational question: What is your “self”? When you look in a mirror and see your own eyes, you recognize yourself in there. What is the thing that looks back at you? What is that voice in your head that talks to you? What is the “I” that you mean when you say, “Oh, I understand”?

We have a sense of feeling that our “self” lives in our heads not for any real biological reason, but because in our modern era we associate the “I” with the brain. But the sense that you can feel yourself thinking in your brain is probably an illusion. How do we know? Well, before modern times, people felt like they were thinking with different parts of the body. The Egyptians, for instance, who saved all of a person’s body parts during mummification because he or she would need them in the afterlife, threw the brain out as useless, thinking it was just a goo that kept the blood cool. Aristotle had this same view of the function of the brain. In other cultures, people have thought the self lived in the heart, with cognition occurring there. That is why we learn something “by heart” and we love someone “with all our heart.” Given the centrality of the heart to life, it makes a kind of sense.

In other places and times, anatomists who noticed the centrality of the liver to the body’s various systems located the self there. We still have vestiges of this in our language as well, such as when we know something “in our gut” or have a “gut reaction” to something.

To further probe this question before we get down to possible answers, ask yourself what makes you, you? When you look at a photo of yourself as a baby, in what sense is that you? When you wake up in the morning, what makes you the same person you were the night before? Is it your memories? If that is the case, then a person who gets amnesia no longer exists. Perhaps the continuity of your physical form makes you, you. Whenever that possibility is posed, the thought experiment of the ship of Theseus is sailed in.

I will give you an abbreviated version: There is a famous ship in a museum. As pieces rot over the centuries, they are replaced. This happens so much that eventually no original piece of the ship remains. Is it still the same ship? The additional wrinkle to the problem is that all the rotted pieces have been saved in a storeroom and someone pieces them all back together to form a derelict ship of Theseus. What do we say then? There are two ships of Theseus? The point of the whole thing should be obvious: you are a breathing ship of Theseus. Given that your cells replace themselves, you literally aren’t the same matter you were a decade ago. But is that you? Given that your brain cells don’t regenerate, or regenerate relatively little, it might be tempting to say that you are your brain cells. However, while the cells don’t regenerate, they constantly change in their relationship with each other. So it is hard to pin down exactly what “you” are.

Why does this question matter for our purposes here? Well, whatever your “self” is, it is inextricably tied to consciousness. It is hard to conceive of a consciousness without a self. So, in later chapters, we will be keenly interested in whether computers can have a “self.”

Let’s tackle our question, then: What is your “self”? There are three possible choices: a clever trick of your brain; an emergent mind; or your soul.

The first option is that it is a trick of your brain. This is what most brain scientists believe. “Trick” in this sense is not intended to mean a deception, but a clever solution, like, “I know a trick for getting gum out of hair.”

So what is this trick? It has two parts. First, your brain gets inputs from all kinds of senses. You receive images through your eyes, you sense temperature with your skin, you hear things with your ears, and so forth. But you don’t perceive reality that way. You don’t have to integrate those different sensory inputs consciously, right? Your brain has figured out this cool trick whereby it can blend them into one single mental experience. It combines them all together. You see the rose and smell it at the same time. It is all one integrated experience, even though sight and smell are completely different parts of the brain. That is the first half of the trick.

Now the second half. At the same time that all this is going on, the different parts of your brain are chugging along, doing their respective things. Some parts are watching out for danger and others are doing math and still other parts are trying to remember the lyrics to a song, and so forth. And the brain has figured out that the best way to handle all this noise is to let just one part of the brain at a time “have the floor.” So maybe you are sitting in a coffee shop alone trying to remember the lyrics to “Louie, Louie” and in walks a grizzly bear who looks like he has had a very bad day. All of a sudden, the part of your brain that is looking for danger starts yelling, “Bear! Bear!” and that part forcefully takes the floor, pushing aside all thoughts of the Kingsmen as you scan the room for weapons or exits. That ability to switch focus is the second part of the trick. Instead of hearing a constant cacophony in your head akin to the mayhem that used to happen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange before computers took over, you get a nice, orderly single voice, as different parts of the brain take turns “speaking.” Have you ever had the experience of trying to remember something, then it just popping into your head hour later? That’s because the part of your brain looking for it never stopped doing so; it just receded into the background while it worked and grabbed the floor only when it finally remembered.

So that is all that the “you” is. Your brain puts all the senses together into a single show and lets only one part speak at a time. Those two things together give the illusion of a “you.”

The way I have described this process, some part of the brain would seem to be in charge, a cerebral master of ceremonies, picking who gets to speak and what you see. If that were the case, then that part of your brain would be the “you.” But most brain scientists believe that such a part of the brain doesn’t exist. The brain self-regulates. There is no executive “you” in charge. Think of it as a giant cocktail party. There is all this chatter going on. Then all of a sudden, a woman yells, “My dress is on fire” and the whole place turns and faces her. A man grabs a vase, yanks the flowers out, and douses her with water. Meanwhile, another guest takes his jacket off and starts beating the fire out. Just as that ruckus is settling down, someone else yells, “Is that Elvis outside?” and everyone runs over to look out the window. In those cases, no one was in charge. Nobody was calling the shots, different processes were just commanding attention.

In this view of your “self,” you would have experienced the voice in your head saying, “That woman’s dress is on fire,” followed by that voice saying, “Could that really be Elvis?” According to the “trick of the mind” choice, that’s the entirety of what your “self” is.

The second option is that your “self” is an emergent mind.

Emergence is a fascinating phenomenon. At its simplest, emergence is when a group of things interact with each other, and through that interaction, the collective whole gains characteristics that none of the individual things has.

Humans are clearly emergent things. You are made of forty trillion cells. They all go about their daily business doing their jobs, getting married, having kids, and then dying. And all along, they have absolutely no idea you exist, or that they are even part of something else. But you, and all your abilities and attributes, are not simply the abilities and attributes of a single one of your cells multiplied by forty trillion. You are not simply the cumulative result of your biological processes, the sum of your individual parts. Not a single one of those forty trillion cells has a sense of humor, and yet, somehow, you do. Somehow there is an “I” that arises from all the activity of those forty trillion cells doing their respective things. We call that emergence. While we understand that it happens, and that in a sense it powers the universe, we don’t really understand how it happens.

There is a kind of giant honeybee that exhibits an emergent property call shimmering. Now, your average giant honeybee isn’t really that bright. In fact, a genius giant honeybee isn’t bright either. But collectively they do something pretty smart. Can you picture that spinning spiral pattern that is always used in cartoons to hypnotize someone? Well imagine a clump of honeybees the size of a dinner plate making that pattern by turning their dark abdomens up at just the right instant, similar to how the wave is done in stadiums. But imagine it spinning a few times a second. There is no way one honeybee sees another one doing it, then thinking, “Now it is my turn.” They just spin and spin, and do so to scare away hornets, who seem to be totally freaked out by this display. But there is no honeybee who is in charge who signals the others to fire up the shimmer.

Or take ant colonies. Any given ant is even less intelligent than a bee. And yet the colony does incredible things, such as building nests, excavating tunnels, and responding to changes in the weather. There are all these different ant jobs that need to be done, and individual ants leave one job and take up another. Balances are struck between ants staying back to protect the colony and ants going out to get food. And if there is a picnic going on nearby, some ants will leave one job to go get more food. But here is the thing: no ant is in charge. The queen isn’t, she just lays the eggs. No ant tells any other ant what to do. The colony itself can thus be thought of as having an emergent mind.

This choice is quite different from the prior one. The “trick of your mind” view suggests that brain function is basically understood and is reasonably straightforward, with all the appropriate caveats. The voice in your head is simply different parts of your brain grabbing the microphone. The emergent view is that things are going on in your brain that are much less understood. Your mind emerged from the basic parts of your brain and took on characteristics that are not as simply explained as the “trick of your mind” view holds. If you are fine with a nuts-and-bolts view of the brain as a straightforward, albeit utterly amazing, organ, then you might find the “trick of your mind” view to be most appealing. If you struggle with a notion that that view doesn’t really account for creativity or you want to insist that there is a real you that is calling the shots, you may find the emergence camp to be more to your liking.

The final option is that your “self” is your soul. The majority of people probably believe this. Why do I say that? Religious belief, while not universal, is certainly the norm. Poll after poll after poll shows that an overwhelming (75 percent or more) portion of Americans believe in God, the devil, heaven, hell, miracles, and the soul. Around the world, we see the same story. While belief in God is not as high worldwide as it is in the United States, it doesn’t dip much below a majority in any country. Worldwide, the best estimates are that 75 percent of people believe in God, 15 percent are agnostic, and 10 percent are atheists.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who believe in Darwinian evolution unguided by the hand of God rests at 19 percent, a fact that causes no small amount of bewilderment and frustration to those 19 percent.

Since the sensation or belief that one has a soul is an entirely private experience, completely real to the person who experiences it but invisible to everyone else, it is a challenge for science to deal with. And while someday science may determine if the brain works the way I describe earlier in this chapter and come to understand emergence better, the soul, by definition, exists outside the physics of the material world, and thus is subject to neither proof nor disproof that would pass scientific muster. Of course, this is fine, because I am sure that almost all those reading this already have some opinion one way or another as to whether they have a soul, and they’re not waiting for a scientific journal to weigh in.

So, what is your essential “self”: A trick of your brain, an emergent property, or your soul? It should be noted that these choices may not seem mutually exclusive. One may, perhaps, believe in an emergent mind, a brain that has a cool trick or two up its metaphoric sleeve, and that he or she has a soul. But the question is not whether those things exist, but which one of them is “you.”


To read more of GigaOm publisher Byron Reese’s new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, you can purchase it here.

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